The puzzle of the neoliberal left and anti-capitalist right

Hungarian Elections – the puzzle of the neoliberal left and anti-capitalist right

In Hungary, political polarisation into the two camps – 'left' and 'right', has resulted in empty slogans and confusing rhetoric. From the outside, the confusion over the left and right is the biggest puzzle in the elections on 9 April and 23 April 2006. From inside, the question is more about strong political identifications, the lack of them, apathy and ultimately democracy. The situation is relatively even.

The Hungarian left, the governing Socialists and their coalition partner Free Democrats, supports liberal economic policies, state and nationhood. The Hungarian right, led by Fidesz, attacks neoliberalism, rampant capitalism and the socialist past, calling for workplaces to all (Hungarians, or 'those who want to work') and for unity of the Hungarians within and beyond the borders of Hungary.

In Hungary, the left and right follow the distinction between state-based and cultural nationalism. Political claims – especially by the large parties – are made as an opposition to the other camp, also through negative campaigning with anti-semitic overtones. Furthermore, the impression of the difference in the main parties political cultures became evident in the mass gatherings on 1 and 2 April, when the left run a laid-back political gathering and the right a mass demonstration with a variety of political speeches and cultural events.

The Socialists are the reformed wing of the state socialist party – which already prior to 1980s held a market-oriented policy. In 1994, as in 2002, the MSZP took power with the liberal Free Democrats, SZDSZ, as their junior partner, reforming the economy rigorously. Many of the MSZP's voters, however, are motivated by nostalgia to Kádár era, statehood, civic nationalism and social responsibility. The PM Ferenc Gyurcsány, a millionaire and former Communist Youth leader, is respected both by the Socialists and Liberals. He calls for investment in the infrastructure, logistics and tourism – with the slogan 'igen', yes.

The SZDSZ are the party of Budapest, urban liberals and intellectuals. It has been unable to draw on a wider pool of liberal voters due to its Jewish character or the partnership with the Socialists, which still works as a cleavage. The party calls for human rights and equality, but fails to realise that the tough liberal policies – such as the flat-tax model – create economic deprivation, inequality and a concern for human rights.

The Fidesz, a liberal party turned to the conservative national side, now focuses on populist rhetoric against policies of privatisation, multinational firms and rampant capitalism. As Hungary has a high budget deficit, instead of the economy the changes would be cultural, based on conservative and nationalist values, e.g. against abortion and for the extension of voting rights to the Hungarians in neighbouring countries. The leader, former PM Viktor Orbán declared that the party would stay in power for the next twenty years with that policy. Simultaneously, he denounces the left as communists. Fidesz slogans include 'Work, Home, and Family', 'Good elections, better life' and 'Long live Hungary!'

The 2006 elections will show, ultimately, whether the smaller parties will make it to the parliament or whether Hungarian politics will polarise further towards a two-party system.

Besides the SZDSZ, the small conservative party MDF is running close to the five percent threshold. In power 1990-94 with finally unsuccessful interwar values and rhetoric, it now runs a 'mature' conservative campaign, relying on the popularity its Thatcher-like leader Ibolya Dávid. Both large etatist parties have their neoliberal partner.

Among the small parties there's the Hungarian 'Third Way': the extreme right of MIÉP, who fell out of parliament in 2002, and Jobbik. In the centre, the Centrum and the newly established Green Party relay on the disillusionment over polarisation. The Green agenda is merely their slogans 'we are not politicians', or 'you are not interested in politics – we neither'. In 2002, a Green Democrat party allied with Centrum, but they failed to enter the parliament. As also the new left Újbaloldal and the communist Munkáspárt will fail to reach the parliament, Hungary lacks a serious non-neoliberal left.

The biggest problem for democracy in Hungary is that the complex electoral system supports large parties and the political elites are polarised between the 'so-called' left and right. While some strongly identify with the main parties (MSZP, Fidesz, SZDSZ and MDF), equally large sections of the potential voters strongly disidentify with all of them, and particularly with polarisation. Paradoxically, a low turn out would help the small parties to enter the parliament.

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